I know without a doubt that these four months abroad will go down as some of the best of my life. Not just because of how fun they’ve been, but also how rewarding they’ve been as I’ve faced inevitable challenges. The fear of the unknown has always been a big obstacle for me, as I don’t like not knowing what I’m getting myself into – and because of that, study abroad was the perfect opportunity for growth. The whole point of going abroad is to immerse yourself into a situation that is unfamiliar and hard. I say all this because although there is a long list of things it would have been nice to know before coming into this experience, there’s also so much that came out of me not knowing those things. So, the things listed in this blog as “things I wish I knew before studying abroad” will probably not seem too major, because the major things are what brought the most growth, and because of that, I’m okay that I didn’t know them. Does that make sense? Anyway…
Here are five simple things I wish I would have known before studying abroad:
1. Life at home doesn’t stop happening just because you aren’t there for it – cherish time with your people!
Before coming here, I was confident I wouldn’t experience much homesickness with all the excitement happening around me here. The football game days, sorority date parties, family gatherings and road trips all still happened but I wasn’t there, and honestly, it was hard. Spend as much time with your people before you go, because you’re going to miss them and need to lean on them when you’re far away!
2. You don’t need all twenty-five pairs of shorts you packed.
I mentioned this in the first blog post I wrote on study abroad packing tips, but seriously, pack lighter than you think! I’m not even a big shopper, but I’ve found I few items I couldn’t say no to and am still trying to do the math in my head on how I’m going to get everything home. If you’re even questioning it, you don’t need it!
3. A little bit of French goes a long way.
I didn’t know a lick of French before coming here and was pretty okay with learning it as needed on the spot. While it has still been fairly easy to communicate and pick up on key phrases, some familiarity with the basics of the language would’ve been very helpful. The amount of times I have said, “My life would be so much easier if I just knew French,” since being here is honestly kind of alarming.
4. Three-hour classes are more survivable than you think.
This probably isn’t the case for all study abroad programs, but at my school, all classes are three hours long, once a week. This was daunting to me, as most of my classes at home are shorter and more frequent. However, I love it! I only have class on Mondays and Tuesdays and spend the rest of the week exploring and traveling. There was no need for me to stress about this simple aspect beforehand.
5. It’s going to fly by.
This pill is the hardest to swallow. I’m sitting in my bedroom of my French townhouse writing this in early November, with just a month and a half left of my program. There are so many things I still want to see, people I want to meet, places I want to go. If I could tell myself anything, it would be to soak it all up and say “yes” to everything. I think I’ve done a fairly good job of making the most of my time but could always have done more. In the same vein, don’t spend so much time regretting what you haven’t done, that you can’t appreciate all that you have done. I’ve seen some really amazing things and while I’ll always wish I had more time here, I’m beyond grateful for the experiences I have had, and know how truly blessed I am.
And now, here are five big things I’m so glad I didn’t fully grasp before my time abroad:
1. Public transportation is HARD.
This one might not seem major, but BOY it is. I come from a suburb of Dallas, Texas, where we drive just about everywhere, and public transportation isn’t common. In France, not only is it common, but it’s VERY necessary. It is a well-known fact to not just me but those who love me that I am what they call “directionally challenged.” While I still turn the wrong direction every time I walk out my front door, I now know how to get around by taxi, metro, bus, tram, train, plane, you name it. And if I can navigate all that (about 75% of the time successfully) in a country where I can’t read the signage or speak to the driver, I can do anything!
2. You’re going to make lots of mistakes.
And boy did I ever. Biggest mistake so far? My passport fell out of my backpack at home just hours before boarding a plane to Portugal on my very first weekend trip of the semester, and I didn’t figure it out until the lady at the gate told me I couldn’t get on the flight. Many frustrating phone calls, tears, hours searching for a new flight and a nice chunk of change later, I made it to Portugal! I will never forget my passport again, and neither will anyone who gets the joy of traveling with me in the future. Mistakes are good, even when they hurt.
3. School administrations work very differently in France.
Don’t go into the semester assuming school will be the same with regard to scheduling, class attendance, communications with professors and administrators and so on. I’ve faced many obstacles in this area, mainly related to scheduling conflicts and the communications that followed to fix them. My lack of knowledge on the unique school system here, while irritating, helped me form relationships with important and helpful people at my school and helped me recognize the importance of being patient in frustrating situations.
4. Every French citizen does not despise Americans.
Sure, I’ve gotten my handful of dirty looks since being here (what for, I’m still not sure), but the majority of French citizens I’ve encountered have been incredibly friendly and helpful. I’m glad I didn’t know this wasn’t true because the “fear of the French” that I subconsciously had encouraged me to be extra friendly and respectful of the differing culture from mine, and I think this has helped me make friends with some locals and understand the value of embracing an unfamiliar culture.
5. Gas stoves. Enough said.
Not much to elaborate on here, but an important life skill I learned for sure.
Some of these may seem trivial, some not. Either way, I’m always going to look back on ways I could have prepared differently or saved myself some stress. Regardless of all these things, the biggest regret out of all of them would have been not pursuing this experience to learn it all firsthand. If I could sum this post up with one call-to-action, it would be this: STUDY ABROAD! Cheesy, but there will always be a long list of what-ifs that come before making a big decision. From this experience, I’ve learned that the (often anxiety-inducing) unknown that comes before going abroad is far more worth it than the regret of never trying, if you have the capability. Hug your friends and family, pack a little less than you planned, download Duolingo, then just GO! You’ll never know unless you try.
Cameron ten Napel is the Fall 2021 CEA MOJO Blogger in French Riviera, France, and is currently studying at University of Oklahoma.